30 Years Ago: John Mellencamp Briefly Goes Hollywood With ‘Falling From Grace’
John Mellencamp acknowledges that his perspective has changed on Falling From Grace, the unsuccessful feature film he directed and starred in.
"I'm glad I made that movie now," he tells UCR. "There were periods in my life where I thought, 'Why the fuck did I do that?' – because I really didn't enjoy the experience at the time. You know me, I'm not cut out to make movies, at least the way they do in Hollywood."
Falling From Grace arrived on Feb. 21, 1992 during an upward creative trajectory for Mellencamp, who'd hit big with American Fool, Uh-Huh and then Scarecrow. The idea for writing and making a movie came after the five-times-platinum Scarecrow firmly entrenched Mellencamp in pop music's upper echelon.
Influenced by favorite films such as Hud and The Last Picture Show, he drafted an initial screenplay titled Ridin' the Cage, a gritty look at small-town Midwesterners who'd grown up (paraphrasing Bruce Springsteen) to do what their parents had done. Mellencamp quickly got interest from Warner Bros. Pictures, which suggested a re-write. He then reached out to Larry McMurtry, who wrote the novel and co-wrote the screenplay for The Last Picture Show.
McMurtry revamped the story to turn its protagonist, Buddy Parks, into a country-music star returning to his economically challenged home town, where he has an affair with a former girlfriend, played by Kay Lenz. Warner Bros. subsequently passed on the tale but Columbia Pictures picked it up in 1989, green-lighting a $3 million budget.
Watch a Trailer for 'Falling From Grace'
They also signed off on the idea that the inexperienced Mellencamp — who told VH1 he'd also been offered the small role Brad Pitt took in 1991's Thelma & Louise — could take on the twin roles of director and star of the project.
Filming began in Bloomington and Seymour, Ind., during the summer of 1990, with Mariel Hemingway playing Buddy Parks' loving-but-spurned wife, Claude Akins as the fictional singer's father and Dub Taylor as his grandfather. Mellencamp fleshed the cast out with fellow singer-songwriter John Prine, family members and players from his band, including guitarist Larry Crane and bassist Toby Myers.
Prine told Mellencamp biographer Paul Rees that "those were probably some of the most fun weeks I've ever spent. Making a movie in Indiana in the summertime when the fields are ripe and you can smell the corn? Good times."
Mellencamp would not say the same. He was used to directing his own ship, and a much smaller one at that. There were many moving – and, in some cases, autonomous – parts required in filmmaking, not to mention cast-member egos.
"I didn't enjoy being around the other actors," Mellencamp says now. "There was nothing I liked about it, except setting up the shots. I loved creating the shots with the cameras, and I tried not to make it a lazy TV show. Larry McMurtry is a wonderful writer, so I wanted to get it as good as I could. But, yeah, [the shots], that's really all I enjoyed."
And, he adds with a chuckle: "You can't direct me; I don't do anything anybody says. 'You need to do that.' 'No, I'm not gonna do that. I'm gonna do this!' That's not exactly a Hollywood attitude, right?"
Listen to 'Sweet Suzanne' by the Buzzin' Cousins
Dissatisfied with the final product, Columbia screened Falling From Grace in just 22 theaters. The film grossed $49,708 on its opening weekend according to Box Office Mojo, and nearly $232,000 during its 45-week theatrical run, after an Oct. 1 opening in the U.K. Falling From Grace actually earned a number of favorable reviews, including two thumbs-up from Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, and a 78 percent positive ranking from Rotten Tomatoes.
Rees, however, noted that "John himself didn't have the acting chops to carry the film, nor the skill as a director to pull it off. The end result was more like a well-made TV movie, workmanlike in most all aspects and ultimately inconsequential."
Mellencamp had arguably more fun putting together the film's soundtrack, a 13-song set that included songs by Prine, Crane, Dwight Yoakam, the late folk singer Nanci Griffith and Janis Ian, along with instrumentals by Mellencamp band violinist Lisa Germano. Mellencamp sang two Crane-written songs, "It Don't Scare Me None" and "Nothing's For Free." He also wrote "Sweet Suzanne," which he recorded with the ad hoc band Buzzin' Cousins featuring Prine, Yoakam, Joe Ely and McMurtry's son James, whose 1989 debut Too Long in the Wasteland had been produced by Mellencamp.
The Falling From Grace experience did not deter Mellencamp from the film world completely. He provided narration for the 2001 hydroplane-racing drama Madison, and had roles in the same year's psychological drama After Image, plus the 2002 comedy Lone Star State of Mind. He also wrote the score for Ithaca, the 2015 movie that starred his then-girlfriend Meg Ryan.
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